Benjamin Franklin famously referred to honesty as “the best policy.” Mark Twain cynically added, “when there is money in it.”
We have been conditioned to believe Twain had it right. At least, political scandals and police blotters would indicate that money is the overriding goal of human behavior for many.
But that doesn’t explain the mystery student who attended Riverton Elementary School nearly 50 years ago.
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As the Deseret News reported Friday, an administrative assistant was perusing the mail when she found an anonymous letter in an envelope containing $50.
“I was in the sixth grade during the 1969-70 school year,” it said. “I took some paperback school books from my teachers. … I know I can’t pay them back, but take this and get some more books with it. Sorry for what I did.”
Many students might be happy to pay their school not to have to take books home, but this act of contrition nearly a half century after the fact was about a lot more than the love of reading. The lesson it taught might be found in books, but it can’t truly be learned until it is implanted in the heart.
I was reminded of a Norwegian woman I read about many years ago. She, too, remained anonymous, but she had lived with the guilt of 67 cents for 50 years and just couldn’t take it anymore. That was how much extra a store clerk had given her in change — an error the woman had noticed but not acknowledged at the time. She finally sent the store a check for the equivalent of $13, with a note of explanation.
The error occurred in 1949, when times were tough in post-war Norway. Perhaps she thought the 67 cents would do her more good than it would the store owner, or that it would outweigh the burden it created on her conscience. But after many years it had become a burden too heavy to carry.
I can only speculate as to what changed these people to make them do what they did. There must have been a change. Had they felt this way at first, they never would have taken the things they did.
But I do know that whatever caused it has a lot more to do with Christmas than the crowds in stores, the aggressive battles for parking spots or the stress-filled quest for the perfect decoration or cookie plate.
Whatever you believe about the baby in that manger in Bethlehem, he stood for honesty, and for the joy and relief that come from making wrong things right — even if it takes many years.
What makes these stories unusual is that many of us would consider the thefts trivial, or even meaningless after all these years.
But to the people involved, all of that obviously sounded like rationalizations. We’re good at recognizing rationalizations when they involve big things. A few years ago, I wrote about a driver who was pulled over on Bangerter Highway with 57 pounds of methamphetamine in the rear quarter panels of his car. It had an estimated value of $6 million.
He told authorities he needed that money so he could go to college and so his mother could have surgery.
We can laugh at that, but where along the spectrum of price does rationalization go from trivial to dishonest and finally to absurd?
The former Riverton Elementary student, just like the elderly Norwegian lady, may have thought they knew the answer, until they reached a higher level of introspection.
Ultimately, the story of the repentant child book thief grabs our attention because it makes just about all of us feel uncomfortable. As a current lunch lady at the school, who had been a member of that long-ago class, said, “It made me think, ‘Wow, what in my life … do I need to do to reconcile something?’ It makes you think about your own life and things that you need to make right and stuff.”
That’s not a bad thing. As the fictional Ebenezer Scrooge and countless other real people can attest, it is the true Christmas spirit.